The New York Times quotes Sarah Silverman:
“I need more rape jokes,” she shouted nasally before letting her fans in on what she called a comedy secret, that such jokes are actually not so “edgy” after all. “Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?” she asked. “They barely even report rape.”
I thought this debate about rape jokes, between standup comedian Jim Norton and feminist Lindy West (who I think is an aspiring stand-up as well?) was one of the best TV debates I’ve ever seen. I wish they had more time and had gotten into more arguments, but I liked that both debaters were respectful and funny.
Of course, since the debate was broadcast on FX, Lindy West has gotten tons of woman-hating and fat-hating comments from male comedy fans. Lovely. (Norton, who Lindy described as “thoughtful and fair,” publicly objected to how fans are treating Lindy.)1
Oddly enough, Jim Norton has a bit part in “one of the most extraordinary discussions of gay male sexuality and the use of the word “faggot” ever seen on television,” from the TV show Louie, in which Louie asks Rick (played by stand-up comic Rick Crom, who is gay) if it bothers Rick that Louie uses the word “faggot” in his stand-up act. (Go ahead and watch it, but be warned: the dialog features misogyny, obscenity and homophobia by the bagfull). The discussion in the show, I have read, was written by Louie CK based on a real-life discussion he had with Rick Crom, which convinced him to stop using the word “Faggot” on stage.
Rick in the Louie scene and Lindy West in the debate make very similar arguments: Go ahead and make those jokes if you like, but think about what they are received by the survivors of rape and homophobia in your audience.
I’m less concerned by jokes told by standup comedians, than by the jokes told in more everyday circumstances, around the proverbial water cooler2, in social media, and on TV. I see three reasons to be concerned:
1) As Lindy says, those jokes can help normalize attitudes in our culture that make rape more likely to occur more often.
2) Also as Lindy says, the jokes could be very painful for rape victims to hear.
3) Some of the people hearing rape jokes are themselves rapists:
If one in twenty guys is a real and true rapist, and you have any amount of social activity with other guys like yourself, really cool guy, then it is almost a statistical certainty that one time hanging out with friends and their friends, playing Halo with a bunch of guys online, in a WoW guild, or elsewhere, you were talking to a rapist. Not your fault. You can’t tell a rapist apart any better than anyone else can. It’s not like they announce themselves.
But, here’s the thing. It’s very likely that in some of these interactions with these guys, at some point or another someone told a rape joke. You, decent guy that you are, understood that they didn’t mean it, and it was just a joke. And so you laughed.
And, decent guy who would never condone rape, who would step in and stop rape if he saw it, who understands that rape is awful and wrong and bad, when you laughed?
That rapist who was in the group with you, that rapist thought that you were on his side. That rapist knew that you were a rapist like him. And he felt validated, and he felt he was among his comrades.
* * *
The term “rape jokes” is too broad (Lindy touches on this in the debate). Which jokes, specifically? And who do they target, the rapist or the rape victim?
- I also found it interesting, hearing that clip, how much the interviewer is too stupid and stuck on his easy stereotypes to even understand what argument Lindy is making, so much so that Norton seems frustrated by the host’s bad faith arguments, even though Norton is ideologically aligned with the host. [↩]
- We have a water cooler in my office, and we actually do sometimes stand around it and chat, and I always feel iconic. [↩]